Forced Sterilization, Eugenics, and the Social Control of Women

One of the central demands of women’s struggle against oppression has always been reproductive rights: access to safe birth control, abortion, and no forced sterilization. None of the demands against discrimination, including pay equity, have been realized but the greatest and often violent opposition has been to abortion rights. Many religious people object to the morality of abortion but their voices are not more compelling than those of millions of women around the world who seek to end an unwanted pregnancy by legal or illegal means.

Religious objections should not hold sway in modern countries with separation of church and state though religion is not the reason most countries control or outright deny women’s access to abortion. Control of women’s biology and the reduction of women to baby machines is the primary method of politically and economically controlling them. For governments, it is a matter of social engineering and never was an issue of morality.

The demand to end forced sterilization is a necessary part of abortion rights. Forced sterilization is a practice rooted in eugenics and the theory of overpopulation from the late 19th century. Going as far back as Thomas Malthus, overpopulation alarmism has always been rooted in European colonialism and racist hatred. The historic connections between racism, colonialism and eugenics are direct and in the early days, there were never even attempts to mask that association.

Forced sterilization was widely and legally practiced throughout the US in the 19th and most of the 20th century–directed at “undesirables,” those with disabillities, Blacks, Latinas, Native Americans. Much of the practice was forced sterilization, without the knowledge or consent of thousands of Black, Latina, & Indigenous women who would go into clinics for routine procedures and come out sterilized. These practices continue in the US and other countries. Today, Native American women have considerable on-going litigation over forced sterilizations; Israel acknowledges performing it on Ethiopian immigrants; 148 women prison inmates in California were sterilized without consent (between 2006-2010); it’s been rampant in China to enforce the one-child policy. For US population control programs in African countries and India most notably, eugenics and forced sterilization is the guiding principle because at the heart of eugenics is the most monstrous, stinking racism and white supremacy.

That is precisely why the women’s movement of the 1970s included “Abortion on demand; No forced sterilization” as a demand–precisely to draw a hard line between those who wanted birth control and abortion for racist purpose to deny reproductive choice and feminists who believed in women’s right to control their own bodies. Abortion is a practice that allows women that control; sterilization completely denies it which is why it is the preferred method of eugenicists.

The most frenetic periods of overpopulation and eugenics alarmism were at the turn of the 20th century in an era of great anti-colonial uprisings and massive migrations leading up to WWI. It was unashamedly promoted all over the world and directed in the US and elsewhere at immigrants, the working class, disabled, gay, Jewish, Black, Latino, or Indigenous peoples. It was always associated with the power elite and shilled as gospel in most elite universities.

Its decline in respectability began with WWII and the Nazi exterminations (which were eugenics applied to a European population rather than in the colonies) and in the post-colonial period after WWII. It is in the post-WWII period when eugenics theory was discredited that overpopulation began to be highlighted more and in a few decades became a frenzy. It is not coincidental that after the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the women’s movement of the 1960s-70s eugenical theories reached a fever pitch because the entire thrust of those movements undermined white and male supremacy which are fundamental to capitalist social control. It can no longer operate without them.

In the post-WWII period, the driving force of population alarmism was massive nationalist and anti-colonial movements leading to decolonialization. Much of the frenzy was led by British and French colonial officials who feared a political backlash from the anti-colonial movements if they openly pushed population control programs. They certainly could no longer openly espouse eugenics. NGOs and private agencies like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations were always centrally involved in population control and eugenics but this is when their role as government proxies became indispensable and have remained so. Several colonial administrators transitioned to heading NGOs involved in eugenics and population control. One example is the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) founded in Bombay in 1952. Colville Deverell who administered several British colonies became the first Secretary-General of IPPF in 1964. The IPPF continues to be funded by governments, foundations, and the UN. Although Planned Parenthood in the US is historically associated with eugenics and has never repudiated it, feminism has made it difficult for them to openly pursue or acknowledge now.

The decline of the women’s movement began very rapidly with the legalization of abortion in January 1973. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Opposition to abortion became a central social issue for religious fundamentalists and the right-wing in the US. In the 42 years of legality, these political forces aligned with the Catholic hierarchy have conducted a relentless and well-financed onslaught to reverse abortion rights using hundreds of legislative initiatives, legal actions, often paramilitary violence and assassinations of abortion providers.

One of their targets was funding for the “family planning”/population control programs overseas and their efforts have been extremely successful in limiting abortion rights and access for millions of women. The few remaining women’s rights groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and NARAL Pro-Choice America have an electoral and lobbying political perspective and in over four decades of sustained assault have only used their authority three times to call massive protests in defense of abortion. Those marches in Washington, DC all drew nearly half a million people. The last one was in 2004.

Of course the right-wing onslaught against abortion dovetails with the perspectives of the ruling elite which has never been reconciled to abortion rights because it weakens their control over women. The ink wasn’t dry on the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion in the US before the US instituted the first of many restrictions against funding abortion in the eugenics programs overseas. Sterilization, with or without consent, remains the primary method of “family planning” in the plundered countries because it disempowers women.

Under the ravages of modern capitalism, control of population is a way of managing the crises their policies create. They have no possible solutions to massive poverty, starvation, unemployment, homelessness, immigration–not if they want to continue plundering. So eugenics provides a barbaric safety valve by destroying the reproductive potential of millions of women.

Abortion rights in the US are a political shell game between the two parties of capitalism, with Democrats feigning support for women’s rights and Republicans playing tough moral guardians. If there’s any confusion on that score, a delegation to a 1994 UN population control conference in Cairo was led by then Democratic Vice President Al Gore who said, “The US does not seek to establish a new international right to abortion, and we do not believe that abortion should be encouraged as a method of family planning.” How does that differ from Ellen Sauerbrey, US Ambassador to the UN under George Bush, who said “There is no fundamental right to abortion”?

How that rancid ideology works out in population control programs and the role of NGOs and foundations as proxies (including the Ford, Rockefeller, Buffett, and Gates Foundations along with the World Bank) has just been exposed in the most gruesome way in India. But of course it is reproduced in countries around the world–from Kenya to Uganda to the Philippines to the US. In Bilaspur, a city in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, thirteen women given tubectomies in a government-run sterilization camp died and 69 were hospitalized, twenty of them in critical condition. One doctor had operated on 83 women in six hours–about four minutes per woman. In the most predictable ways, the government went into overdrive. It arrested five doctors, including the surgeon. They found the drugs used were contaminated with rat poison & arrested the pharmaceutical manufacturer & his son.

They’re going to be scapegoating up a storm to distract from India’s criminal policies of population control. And not for the first time. Indira Gandhi’s notorious sterilization program in the 1970s sterilized over 8 million men, sometimes with compensation but mostly forced. India now has one of the highest rates of female sterilization in the world provided free by the government in sterilization camps to control population, i.e., eugenics. There are between four to five million women sterilized every year. Some media reports claim sterilization is popular for family planning because it’s free and “sidesteps cultural resistance to and problems with distribution of other types of contraception in rural areas.” Cultural resistance? Problems with distribution? You can peddle that baloney to a kindergartner but it’s just a slick way of blaming people for the policies of their government. Is it difficult to distribute birth control because primary healthcare is in such a sorry state? India reportedly has one of the world’s worst records on maternal healthcare (and that’s saying a mouthful) with high death rates for both mothers and infants at birth. Media reports don’t distinguish who the women are by caste but just as Gandhi’s forced sterilization program targeted Dalits, it is certain they are most affected now.

It isn’t that sterilization is popular with young women but that the government does not provide alternative birth control in order to compel sterilization without putting a gun to the women’s heads. Women who ask about birth control are told surgical sterilization is their only choice. It offers incentive fees of about US $10-20 which is about a week’s pay in a country where 180 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. The government offers those payments to the women, to the health workers recruiting them, to the doctors and sets sterilization quotas for each state. Sterilization is the cornerstone of India’s corrupt family planning system.

Now there’s something curious going on here because at the London Family Planning Conference in 2012 attended by all the big players in population control/eugenics, over US $4.6 billion was pledged to family planning programs and India was one of the target countries. In addition, the Gates Foundation targeted India directly and through Family Planning 2020 (where private donors invest in family planning) to the tune of millions of dollars. The Gates Foundation boasts of its collaboration with the Indian government in family planning. So are they involved in these sterilization camps? Is that where the incentive money comes from? But then why are there no family planning programs in India? Why isn’t birth control available? Why is prenatal care inadequate? Where the hell is all that money going? Because if you look at the conditions in the sterilization camps, you find instances like in West Bengal where 106 women were dumped in a nearby field for recovery from surgery. You find women dragged out of recovery and sent home contrary to sound medical practice; women given inferior, questionable medicines that kill. Or you find instances of squalid grimy health facilities where one surgeon works on 83 women in six hours. And you find thousands of cases every year of failed operations, complications, or death due to sterilization. So what exactly is the agenda here?

Once again, women must fight the historic battles against eugenicists in government and those in humanitarian disguise like the Gates and other foundations to take control of health care, of reproductive rights and services and wield them in the service of women and children. In the absence of a feminist response to these programs and in one of the ugliest of historic sarcasms, it is right-wing forces opposed to women’s reproductive freedoms who do the most investigative exposes of the population control/eugenics programs. And they do it not to advance women’s rights but to deny them.

Even those with religious objections to abortion cannot abstain from this struggle against eugenics and forced sterilization because it is not just the colonization of women’s bodies but of entire regions of the world. Women’s rights are human rights and that mantra is not diminished by the odious Hillary Clinton who repeats it while supporting eugenics programs in the US and around the world.

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